March 11, in Madrid

Print edition : April 09, 2004

AT 7-30 a.m. on Thursday, March 11, 2004, ten powerful explosions ripped through four packed commuter train carriages in Madrid. I heard of the blasts on the 8 a.m. newscast in Paris. The casualty figure given was 15 dead with scores injured. Half an hour later, the figure climbed to 25 dead and over 200 injured.

Rescue workers near the damaged train at Atocha station in Madrid.-PETER DEJONG/AP

From the taxi on my way to the airport to catch a flight that would take me to the scene of carnage, I spoke to journalist friends in Madrid. "I'm at Atocha station. It's terrible, it's terrible," wept Juan Antonio. Behind his voice were policemen's whistles, voices issuing commands, the incessant wail of ambulance sirens. "It's like a war zone. Oh my God, I cannot tell you of the horror. The government says it's ETA. It cannot be. They are not capable of such horror. I shall wait for you at the Palace hotel. Central Madrid is paralysed. They have stopped trains and most subway lines, so you might have to walk."

What met my eyes when I reached Atocha station, walking the last kilometre of the mammoth traffic jam that gridlocked the city, was utter chaos, desolation and devastation. Juan Antonio and I held each other close as we surveyed the wreckage, the bodies still lying on Atocha's platform number 2.

Four bombs went off between 7-30 and 7-45 Madrid time. The first explosion occurred at the Atocha commuter station. Almost simultaneously there were blasts on three other trains near the stations of El Pozo and Santa Eugenia. The technique used by the bombers was simple. They got on commuter trains heading for Madrid at the Alcala de Henares station, placed backpacks loaded with explosives on the luggage racks, and slipped out - all within the two minutes the trains stop at the station. All the three trains bombed were on the Guadalajara-Alcala de Henares-Linares commuter line.

Atocha, Madrid's central station, suffered the worst carnage. Car number three of the train on which the blast took place there had a huge hole in its side, and at 5 p.m. firemen were still removing dismembered limbs and other human remains from the mangled wreckage and laying them out in a row on the platform. The last three passenger cars were completely destroyed. The explosion had hurled bodies on to the tracks.

A field hospital had been set up at the station itself and the wounded were being attended to there. People were stunned into incoherence by the horror of what they saw. A young student who suffered minor injuries said: "I felt a heat wave pass near me. And then, the woman who was across me in the train was no more. My ears are ringing. There was this big hole in the carriage. I don't know how I survived." Her sentences tumbled out, disjointed, jumbled, incapable of conveying what she had experienced. Many survivors just sat by the side of the road, their heads in their hands. Clearly, the bombs were set to go off at rush hour and kill as many people as possible.

The Gregorio Maranon hospital was teeming with people. Worried relatives crowded the emergency area where information booths had been set up. "Please, first check if the name of your relative is on the web site," the harried staff kept reporting. Throughout the morning, the hospital had broadcast calls for blood donations. Spaniards responded promptly and generously. By late afternoon the dead totalled 175 and estimates of the injured had doubled from 400 to 800.

Late that night official figures placed the figures at 198 dead and 1,400 injured. This was the worst terrorist attack ever experienced by Europe after the Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am jet in 1988.

While the rescue operations were under way, the government of Jos Maria Aznar announced that the explosions were the handiwork of ETA, the Basque separatist organisation that has been battling Madrid's rule for the past 38 years. But ETA immediately disclaimed responsibility for the attacks and accused Prime Minister Aznar of wishing to make political capital from the tragedy. What we learnt later was that Aznar had been busy all afternoon telephoning newspaper editors and his Ambassadors around the world asking them to blame ETA. A three-day official mourning period was announced and flags flew at half-mast. Political campaigning for Sunday's legislative elections was immediately halted. Aznar called on his compatriots to demonstrate the following day against ETA.

On Thursday night itself spontaneous demonstrations broke out, with anger on the streets. The government recovered a stolen van with seven copper bomb detonators and an audiotape with Koranic verses. The Al Qaeda thread was growing but still the government continued to insist the ETA was the perpetrator.

On Friday morning I made my way to the San Carlos exhibition grounds where a make-shift morgue had been set up. About 50 unidentified bodies, each in an individual coffin, had been lined up for inspection by the relatives. Some were horribly disfigured, others almost completely charred, still others missing limbs or heads.

"I have no news, no news at all. I went to the hospital, they told me to consult the web site. I cannot find a trace of my daughter," a distraught mother wept. People of 11 nationalities were among the victims, some of them illegal immigrants. Aznar said the latter would automatically receive Spanish citizenship. Many of the injured and dead belonged to Spanish-speaking South American countries.

"People come here steeling themselves for the worst. They have gone to the hospitals, consulted the web sites and the lists. Their relatives are on none of those lists. What they see here is terrifying. Limbs separated from bodies. I had a mother who recognised her daughter from the engagement ring on her hand. The arm was all that was left of the daughter," a Red Cross worker said.

For many, the grim search was simply too much to bear. One woman emerged, her eyes red with weeping. Nearby, an old man, overcome with emotion, collapsed into the arms of a Red Cross volunteer. There were scenes of panic with people running from body to body, trying to locate their loved ones. In a gesture of solidarity, taxi drivers drove relatives free of charge to the morgue and back.

On Friday evening, over two million people jammed the streets of Madrid. It rained incessantly. It seemed as if the heavens had opened up in grief. From the window of my hotel overlooking Plaza Colonne there was a sea of umbrellas as far as the eye could travel, with flickering candle flames that were quickly snuffed out by the raindrops. Walking amongst the demonstrators, I became aware of the intense burning anger that coloured their grief. "Death to the terrorists", many of them shouted. Slogans written in red ink on the placards they held became a runny symbol of the blood that was spilt. Opponents of Aznar shouted "Liar" and "Manipulator". They were old, young, dark or fair, carrying flowers and candles, bearing umbrellas, and wearing black ribbons signifying mourning. Many people just stood silently, held hands and wept.

"This public grief is a cathartic experience. Tomorrow it will be clear that the bombs are not the work of ETA but Al Qaeda. We have been misled about who is behind this tragedy. We shall revisit the reasons why Spain went to war. And the people will boot Aznar's party out," said Juan Antonio. His words would prove prophetic.

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